Who killed employee engagement? An internal communications whodunit

Quick, call for help! There’s a silent assassin at large in your organisation and its intended victim is employee engagement. What is this unseen assassin and how is it plotting to destroy the employee experience and finish off employee engagement for good?

It’s a fact that we all know this assassin well, because it’s right under our noses everyday when we are at work. It’s those poorly designed and communicated IT systems which everyone is compelled to use by their employers (Cue – blood curdling scream).

It’s an open and shut murder case then? Our IT colleagues are 100% guilty of implementing systems that hinder rather than help us get through our working day and they are slowly killing employee engagement to boot.

Hey, not so fast Sherlock! Don’t come to any hasty conclusions just yet because the assassin also has some unwitting accomplices. The internal communications team and colleagues in human resources are also complicit in the crime (Cue – shocked gasps).

It’s the collective failure of IT, IC and HR teams to collaborate effectively which is creating the perfect conditions for the assassin to operate. With the looming challenge of the digital workplace now firmly on the agenda for all organisations, the need for effective collaboration between these three key players has never been greater.

The scene of the crime

Let me share a couple of crime scenes from my own experience. These demonstrate the shocking experiential outcomes for employees which can occur when internal communicators and HR are unable or unwilling to collaborate in both the design and implementation of IT systems.

I once worked in an organisation where the HR team were being downsized. The reduced team retreated behind the barricade of a hastily implemented self-service HR enquiry system designed to streamline processes, whilst chanting the mantra ‘manager decides, HR supports’.

Unfortunately, the conclusion of the majority of managers and colleagues was that HR no longer offered any support and had simply abandoned them to their own devices. This was because the HR enquiry system was not fit for purpose, poorly designed and full of badly written content and incomprehensible messaging. The employee experience objectives of using it seemed solely to be to put as many people off making a successful transaction or finding the answers they needed, as was possible.

Engagement and satisfaction with the new arrangements plummeted. How different the outcome could have been if an internal communicator had been invited to work in the implementation team.

Another crime scene is the now ubiquitous online recruitment system. If you’ve ever applied for a job in the last few years then you will probably have come across one of these and know that some provide a dreadful first introduction to your prospective employer. Their offences include an inability to accurately extract information from your CV, requests to enter the same information more than once and the use of language and tone which is clearly at odds with the organisation’s stated values.

These systems deliver a poor experience which does nothing to encourage applicants to complete the application process. To add offence to injury I was also once video interviewed online by an avatar. The irony of this strangely surreal experience was not lost on me when I was later asked to provide feedback on the process, which included questions about the ‘friendliness’ and ‘helpfulness’ of the recruitment team. I hadn’t encountered a single human being during the process.

Again, a bit of input from an internal communicator would go a long way to helping make these systems more human, iron out their inconsistencies and create a more positive experience for prospective employees. 

Why is this important? Well, in the often quoted words of Maya Angelou:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

The employee experience of using poorly designed IT systems simply makes people feel bad about their work and themselves, and also makes them think that their employers don’t value them. This destroys employee engagement and impacts negatively on productivity and organisational success.

Learn the IT lingo

Most internal communicators have probably sometimes felt a bit ‘done to’ by their IT departments. This is often because they are brought in at the last minute to communicate the launch of a new IT system, rather than to collaborate in its design and configuration or to articulate its purpose. The double whammy is when the system is also intended to be used for internal communication. Yammer anyone?

I once worked as a communicator in the biggest IT department in central government. This was a valuable experience and I quickly learnt to speak the ‘language of IT’ and understand business delivery from the perspectives of my IT colleagues.

One of my most valuable learning points was developing an understanding of how to articulate a ‘business requirement’ so that an IT system could be built to deliver the desired outcomes, including any communication objectives.  I think that this is the best way an internal communicator can collaborate with IT to make sure that great communication is baked into the system from the outset. The outcomes will then include an excellent employee user experience which can contribute positively to building engagement.

What is a ‘business requirement’?

A business requirement is a bit like a shopping list of what you want to do and what you want to achieve. It’s not a list of the features or specifications of the IT system that needs to be built or procured. That’s something quite separate and best left to IT colleagues to work out.

For example, say you were looking to enhance email communication in your organisation by upgrading the IT systems which create and deliver emails. A couple of the items on your shopping list might look like this.

I want to – Send targeted communications to discrete groups of colleagues.

So that – Relevant communications are tailored for different audiences to increase compliance with calls-to-action.

I want to – Be able to capture immediate sentiment and feedback from colleagues on a wide range of topics.  

So that – Better business decisions can be made and communication interventions designed to support their implementation.

Once you have your complete shopping list of requirements you can then identify which items are essential or which could be optional.  

Initially this might feel like it’s a bit of an abstract approach, but I’ve found that it creates a more constructive discussion with IT colleagues and strips out an exchange of opinions on the merits of one IT solution over another. What you are essentially focusing the conversation on is the objectives you are trying to achieve and not the solution, which is always the better starting point.

Internal communicators are the ultimate connectors in organisations

Finally, I think that as internal communicators we sometimes stand back and wait to be invited to participate in IT and HR led projects. We are reluctant to elbow our way in to make a positive contribution and create better outcomes for employees. It’s our ever present ‘imposter syndrome’ holding us back again.

Let’s play to our strengths, because all internal communicators occupy a unique position in organisations. We are well connected and have a cross cutting view of what is happening across organisational silos. This gives us an unprecedented ability to connect the business together, including IT and HR colleagues, to help create a really joined up and positive employee experience.

Collaborating more effectively will enable us to foil the dastardly silent assassin of not fit for purpose IT once and for all.

Case closed.


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